From the Bottom to the Top

Rediscovering Antarctica

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.



EVEN IF YOU HAVEN’T VENTURED below 60 degrees south lately, chances are you’ve at least browsed one of the 18-odd books devoted to polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, or caught wind of an Antarctic climbing trip, or met someone setting out for the Weddell Sea to gawk at penguins and icebergs. Long considered too cold, too boring, and just plain too far away, the Big White is now stepping into the adventure travel limelight. Which is to say, as fashionably extreme destinations go, Antarctica is hot.

Inspired in part by Shackleton—the most celebrated of Antarctic explorers—tourist, exploratory, and athletic activity at the bottom of the world surged last year and promises to keep increasing into the next. This November, the start of the Antarctic summer and therefore exploration season, at least 16 groups and individuals are scheduled to ski, trek, and sail across great expanses of virgin ice (see “The Cold Rush”). Antarctica’s highest peak, 16,860-foot Vinson Massif in the Ellsworth Mountains along the Ronne Ice Shelf, has emerged as a major destination on the mountaineering circuit, and other peaks are close behind. “You pick what [climb] you want to do, and about nine of ten will be a first ascent or descent,” says Dave German, a Canadian expeditioner who has made 25 trips to the southernmost continent. “That gets people hungry…and it’s as close as you can get to the explorers of old.” At the end of last year a team of six Americans made the first snowboard and ski descents of Vinson, spurring a rush to claim similar firsts. It’s not all happening on solid ground, though: Bay Area surf guru Mark Renneker led a safari to the South Shetland Islands in February, a sojourn that was cybercast to anyone in Webland who ever wondered what it would be like to catch waves spawned from fracturing icebergs.

The South Pole, naturally, is the ultimate prize, and the number of expeditions attempting to reach it on skis from the coast is growing—from 45 last year to 50 in the coming season, according to leading South Pole outfitter Adventure Network International. “To get into the interior is probably as much of a challenge as trying to get onto the mountain at Everest, and probably just as expensive,” says Richard Bangs, founder of the adventure-travel outfitter Mountain Travel–Sobek. “You can get to the edge of it more easily, and thousands and thousands have.”

Amazingly, about 14,400 tourists visited Antarctica in the 1999–2000 season, a rise of almost 50 percent over the previous year. (And soon they’ll come toting the latest edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Antarctica. Choice quote: “Newspapers make good gifts for members of Antarctic stations, but don’t overdo it; a little news of the world goes a long way.”) The majority of these visitors stayed comfortably ensconced aboard Russian icebreakers and the like, snapping photos of tuxedoed birds for the folks at home, but a hardy 130 signed up with Adventure Network International, flying in from southern Chile to the firm’s base at Patriot Hills to ski, climb, trek, and generally commune with the otherworldly landscape. (The firm’s upcoming adventure offerings do not include skydiving—an ANI-organized attempt to parachute to the South Pole ended tragically in December 1997 with three deaths.)


TRADITIONALLY, Americans have looked north for unearthly suspense. The Arctic is nearer, and the race to the North Pole at the beginning of the 20th century gripped the public imagination in a way that the south never did. While far-north explorers such as Robert Peary became international heroes, the U.S. Antarctic expeditions of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s languish in the basement of national memory. How many people know, for example, that on the morning of October 31, 1956, Admiral George Dufek stepped out of an R-4D plane called Que Será Será to leave the first American footprints at 90 degrees south?

Only in recent years, after the rest of the planet was mapped, claimed, and polluted, has the shadowy form of Antarctica begun to coalesce out of the freezing mist. “It’s really the last frontier,” says 36-year-old California resident and full-time explorer Doug Stoup, who made a string of first ski and snowboard descents in the South Shetland Islands and Graham Land in February and who has two similar jaunts scheduled for the coming season. “There’s still so much to explore, so much untouched and unseen.” Adventure Travel Society president Jerry Mallett is more blunt about Antarctica’s unique allure: “We’re filling up every corner of the world.”

But then, adventurers have been feeling that way since about the time of Alexander the Great. Antarctica is the highest continent, as well as the driest, the coldest, and the windiest. But it isn’t just superlatives that have appealed to the current generation of Shackleton’s spiritual kin. It’s the fact that nobody owns it. Unscarred by wars and largely unfettered by governmental red tape, something about this supra-national character seems to click with 21st-century Western consciousness; like it or not, we’re all in this together.And there’s only one enemy: the cold.

There is also one common hero: Shackleton. Now that Shackletonmania has passed through the publishing world, leaving a slew of biographies and coffee-table tomes in its wake, film and television productions are getting in on the act. In February 2001, IMAX filmgoers will watch Reinhold Messner, Conrad Anker, and Stephen Venables make a three-and-a-half-day traverse of the Triton range in South Georgia, retracing Shackleton’s 1916 trek in which he and two companions bored screws through their shoes for makeshift crampons. Later next year, the PBS series NOVA will feature a documentary on the same trip. And, of course, there’s a Hollywood film in development, slated to be directed by Wolfgang Peterson, who just did The Perfect Storm.

In many respects, Shackleton is the perfect icon for our times. “The Boss,” as Shackleton’s men called him, was bad-tempered in the morning, smoked and drank too much, and wasn’t altogether faithful to his long-suffering wife, Emily. But for all this, and more, his leadership skills make him a very modern hero. He watched over his subordinates like a broody hen—when he noticed someone weakening, he would order extra hot milk all around, without revealing who needed it the most. He led by intuition, a practice recently rehabilitated by business-management programs that until quite recently dismissed any methodology that harbored a tinge of emotion. “The kinds of things that Shackleton was able to do are extremely appropriate lessons for the new economy, as businesses move into unexplored territory and have to deal with a level of ambiguity,” says Dennis Perkins, the author of the just-published Leading at the Edge: Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Saga of Shackleton’s Antarctic Expedition.

Despite the sudden rush of polar conquistadors, Antarctica isn’t just another testosterone zone for big guys to figure out how dead they can get. In an increasingly grubby world, it fulfills a human need for sanctuary. It is the only continent we haven’t yet wrecked, a pristine land left untouched by the frigid armies of disillusion, and a fit setting for playing out high—if harsh—ideals and aspirations. Shackleton understood this mysterious appeal to the human psyche, and for him the continent was as much a metaphor as an explorer’s dream. Some believe that before the ice came, Antarctica was the site of Atlantis. But we are beginning to see that Antarctica is within us. As the Boss himself once wrote, “We all have our own White South.”  

Sara Wheeler is the author of Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica (Random House, 1998).

The Cold Rush

Putting adventure in the Far South



WITH ALL THE FIRST ascents, descents, treks, and traverses nabbed in the recent past and planned for the near future in Antarctica, it seems the compass has swung crazily southward. What is it about the bottom of the world that’s got so many adventurers so fired up? On the verge of another busy Antarctic exploration season, we’ve compiled a survey of some of the more notable endeavors and brutal facts. 

Early in 1999, a German team led by renowned climber Stephen Glowatz completed a four-day rock route to summit the northern spire of the Cape Renard Towers. Theformations, rising 2,500 feet out of the Lemaire Channel, are more commonly known as Una’s Tits—a name coined in the 1940s by British surveyors to honor a buxom Falkland Islands resident.

Over nine days in February, a team of six skiers and snowboarders led by professional expeditioner Doug Stoup, 36, claimed a string of first descents in the South Shetland Islands and Graham Land, and named a 2,400-foot rise Lowe Peak after their late climbing partner, Alex Lowe. “We sought south-facing slopes to find snow that sticks,” said Stoup, a California native. Their bounty: “Fresh powder, 30 inches deep, on runs plunging straight into turquoise water.”

The fourth, though certainly not the last, Last Marathon is scheduled for February 5, 2001, on King George Island off the Antarctic Peninsula. The 100-plus participants will pay at least $4,000 each (including airfare from New York) to navigate crevasses and a two-mile stretch of glacier as they hobble past the Russian, Chilean, Uruguayan, and Chinese science bases. This year’s winner, American Fred Zalokar, finished with a time of 3:45:19.

At 16,860 feet, Vinson Massif is one of the world’s Seven Summits, ergo it’s one of Antarctica’s most popular destinations. (Climber-guide Dave Hahn has reached the top 14 times.) Last December Doug Stoup and Stephen Koch made Vinson’s—and the continent’s—first snowboard descent. Dozens more will climb up and ski down the peak this season. And late this year, a six-man team including Conrad Anker, Andrew McLean, and Jon Krakauer will begin a north-to-south ski traverse of the Ellsworth Mountains, tackling some of the region’s 18 unclimbed peaks as they go. A documentary crew from the PBS series NOVA will tag along, logging evidence of global warming high on the range’s rugged peaks.

This November, Minneapolis resident Ann Bancroft and Norwegian Liv Arnesen will embark on a 100-day, 2,400-mile coast-to-coast ski crossing of the continent—with a little help from kite sails that the pair will fix to metal steering bars and shackle to body harnesses. The duo hopes to make the first all-women’s crossing of Antarctica—unless Canada’s Sunniva Sorby and Greenland’s Uiloq Slettemark, leaving from Berkner Island on a 1,676-mile route at about the same time with pretty much the same equipment, beat them to it. “We’re not adversarial in any way—we’re all friends,” says Bancroft. “But we still want to be the first.”

After they attempt the first ski and snowboard descent of the 55-degree pitches on South Georgia Island’s 9,625-foot Mount Paget (just off the top of this map) this November, Doug Stoup and his team of American extreme downhillers (Rick Armstrong, Hans Saari, Doug Coombs, and Kris Erickson) will head to the Queen Fabiolas for more virgin runs. There, they’ll hook up with Paul Sitiera, professor of geology at William Raney Harper College, and a group from Washington, D.C.-based Space Adventures for a little meteorite hunting.

In 1990, Will Steger and Jean-Louis Etienne led a six-man international team on the longest crossing of the continent. With dogsleds and air-dropped resupplies—”a logistical nightmare,” according to Steger—the team traversed 3,800 miles from the Antarctic Peninsula past the South Pole to Russia’s Mirnyy Station. The International Transantarctic Expedition was the last major dogsled-supported crossing; the canines were outlawed by the 1991 Madrid Protocol due to their environmental impact—i.e. dog poo.

Buried beneath 2.5 miles of ice and sealed off for millions of years, Lake Vostok holds a whopping 2,900 cubic miles of water—nearly the volume of Lake Superior. Scientists yearn to study this untouched ecosystem, but to do so they have to find a way to reach its surface without pumping the ice barrier full of antifreeze—thus destroying the mysterious primordial soup below.

Though the average thickness of the Antarctic cap is about 6,600 feet, the ice near Wilkes Land measures nearly 15,800 feet deep—about the height of 11 Empire State Buildings—a weight so crushing it has depressed the earth’s crust below sea level. Incidentally, should a large meteor impact suddenly defrost the entire ice cap, the world’s oceans would rise about 213 feet (say good-bye, Manhattan), and Antarctica, relieved of its burden, would bounce upward like an uncoiling spring about 1,000 vertical feet.

With gusts of up to 180 miles per hour, Commonwealth Bay is often the windiest place on earth.

Damien Gildea, author of The Antarctic Mountaineering Chronology, will lead a coed Australian team of six on a first ascent of Mount McClintock in the Darwin Mountains. Since the peak lies within the Australian-Antarctic territory, its 11,520-foot summit is technically the highest in Oz. The team hopes to crest McClintock on New Year’s Day, 2001. “We will be greeting the new millennium by gazing across our nation’s wildest territory from the summit of its highest mountain,” quoth Gildea.

On March 18, a 186-mile-long and 25-mile-wide chunk of ice broke free from the Ross Ice Shelf, creating the largest berg on record. At press time, it had drifted about five nautical miles and split in two. Such breaks are not a direct result of global warming—though a hole in the ozone layer bigger than North America, and most severe above the geographic South Pole, doesn’t help. Though the ozone layer is thin over the entire continent, it is most depleted in the area within the green line above.

In 1998, Belgian polar explorers Alain Hubert and Dixie Dansercoer completed the continent’s longest crossing by foot, ski, and ski-sail (2,354 hellacious miles). The modified 1957-vintage, 69-square-foot NASA kite sails were, according to Hubert, “the key to the journey’s success.” This November, Hubert will return to Queen Maud Land to attempt a first ascent of the south summit of 8,695-foot Mount Holtanna.

To really get away from it all head here: the Pole of Inaccessibility. This spot is as inland as it gets, 1,200-miles from the nearest ocean.

Since the bankruptcy of the Iridium satellite phone company earlier this year, “white beards” south of this, the 80th parallel, can no longer communicate with the rest of the world in real time—a problem for explorers who attempt to secure sponsorship dollars with live reports from the field. Until another satellite-phone operation shows up, distressed adventurers will have to rely on old-fashioned radios that broadcast preestablished messages (such as “Emergency”) to ground stations at any of a number of bases, which will forward them on to a satellite.


The Natural High?

A leafy herb may fight the ills of altitude

“PEOPLE NEED TO LEARN how to acclimatize properly,” says American Alpine Club medical committee chairman Franklin Hubbell. “If not, they’re ignoring what a hundred years of climbing has taught us: You can’t cheat death, taxes, or altitude.” But now, thanks to a $7.99 herb on the shelf at every right-thinking grocery store, you may be able to haggle a bit.

The wonder plant? Ginkgo biloba. In clinical trials held in April, climbers taking the supplement were half as likely to experience acute mountain sickness as those taking a placebo. Peter Hackett, president of the International Society of Mountain Medicine and colleagues Kirsten Maakestad, a physician at St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, and Gig Leadbetter, professor of exercise science at Mesa State College (also in Grand Junction), co-authored the study of the leafy-tree derivative commonly prescribed by homeopaths as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. “I don’t think it’s a miracle drug—people still got sick—but it’s particularly good for slow ascents,” says Hackett.

Half of the 40 college students participating in the team’s trials swallowed two 60-milligram ginkgo tablets twice a day, starting five days before ascending Colorado’s 14,110-foot Pike’s Peak, while the other half took placebos. After ascending 7,000 feet in two hours (no, they aren’t superhuman—they drove) and spending the night, only 33 percent of those on ginkgo had symptoms of mountain sickness, while 68 percent of the control group experienced nausea, headaches, lack of appetite, or dizziness.

The findings, presented this month in Park City, Utah, at the annual Wilderness Medicine Society conference, could come as welcome relief to those who take Diamox, currently the most widely used mountain-sickness medication. The drug’s side-effects, which include frequent urination and a possible allergic reaction, turn many climbers off. While fully half of those attempting Alaska’s Mount McKinley develop some signs of altitude sickness (according to a 1998 study published in American Family Physician), Hackett estimates that only one-third carry Diamox and fewer still actually use it.

Ginkgo may be just the ticket, but not all mountaineers are rushing to the supermarket. Eric Simonson, the leader of last year’s Mallory-Irvine Research Expedition, has had “no experience with the ginkgo stuff.” But that may change soon. Hackett’s research confirms similar findings from a 1996 French study, and at press time, University of Hawaii researchers were repeating his team’s experiment on 13,796-foot Mauna Kea. Even if the results are promising, it may take some time before the climbing community endorses a 200-million-year-old herb. “These things rarely pan out for us mountaineers,” says Todd Burleson, owner of Alpine Ascents International. “But if Pete’s saying it’s reality, then it definitely means a lot.”



John Borton

Rising Star




Years speed gliding, which involves strapping into a hang glider and sailing, just ten feet off the ground, down a mountainside at about 75 mph through a pylon-studded course:

National ranking among speed gliders:
First out of about 23.

Why he grew bored with cross-country hang gliding:
“It’s like juggling eggs. Drop one egg and the fun is over. Speed gliding is like juggling chainsaws. You don’t have to do it for long for it to be fun.” 

Number of hang gliding rigs in his Los Gatos, California, garage:

What keeps him aloft:
“There’s a certain amount of rush you can get from flying 80 or 90 miles an hour a couple of feet off the ground.”

Competitions lost:
Zero out of six.

Goal for August:
To lead the eight-man U.S. team to first place at the Speed Gliding World Championships at Greece’s Mount Olympus.

How teammate Reto Schaerli describes him:
“John is a type A-cubed personality. Intense wouldn’t be the word.”

Secret weapon:
The Sony Vaio 505 laptop that he uses to build a 3-D model and map of each race course. It helps him determine how fast he can fly each section.

Day job:
Field technical support for Silicon Valley–based Sportvision, which developed the NFL’s “virtual” yellow first-down line.

Why speed gliding is safe:
“No one’s been permanently injured. One guy did break his face into about 27 pieces last year, but that’s the worst, and I think he’s fine now.


Waste Not, Want Not

Where humans wander, excreta stays behind. And in high-alpine regions, it adds up to a heap of trouble.


mud falcon n (ca. 1998): A paper bag filled with a climber’s feces, and sometimes kitty litter, flung from the face of a multipitch route. See also: falling bag of poop. {“The human body can do little but shit. It’s up to people to shit however they can. In remote areas, for the purposes of shitting and not smearing it all over the cliff and the poor saps below you, climbers fly mud falcons and throw them with accuracy.” —GREG CHILD, CLIMBER.}

SINCE THE FIRST alpinists visited the Cirque of the Unclimbables in 1955, the dozen or so 2,000-foot tusks of weathered granite in Canada’s Northwest Territories have emerged within the climbing community as a kind of pristine Yosemite Valley–north. Well, almost pristine: Behind base camp lurks roughly a half-century’s accumulation of human feces. “The place is getting trashed,” says climber Jim McCarthy, who made the first ascent of the most famous route in the Cirque, Lotus Flower Tower. “I think we should station someone up there with a fuckin’ rifle.”

In an effort to address the issue sans firearms, a group sponsored by the American Alpine Club and its northern counterpart, the Alpine Club of Canada, kicks off the Cirque 2000 Project this month. In addition to setting up a kiosk with “Leave No Trace” suggestions, the groups will build a wood-and-stone pit toilet at the on-second-thought-perhaps-inappropriately-named base camp area, Fairy Meadows. Though the latrine will unquestionably put a lid on threats of hepatitis and typhoid—both transmitted through fecal contamination—the arctic porta-potty has become something of a lightning rod for a larger debate about how best to deal with waste in alpine environments, where it is often too cold for bacteria to grow and break down excreta.

For now, the Cirque controversy is primarily aesthetic; climbers haven’t complained of health problems. Yet. But for some, the three-foot-square toilet and shoulder-high privacy screens are more unsightly than the turds. “The Cirque is one of the wildest, most beautiful places on the planet precisely because there are no human structures,” says alpine photographer Galen Rowell, who fears a build-it, improve-it approach will only lead to more development, and suggests visitors simply dig holes to hide their respective messes. In British Columbia’s once-remote Bugaboos, Rowell notes, toilets eventually paved the way for full-scale lodges. But above the treeline, there just aren’t many options: In high season on Mount Rainier, for example, helicopters airlift waste off the mountain almost daily. And at Everest base camp, mountaineers pay “shit Sherpas” 75 cents a kilo to haul fecal matter below the moraine and bury it.

Compared to Rainier, the Cirque’s roughly one-ton-per-year accumulation is (sorry) nary a drop in the bucket. Nonetheless, Cirque 2000 project leader John Young believes the toilet is a necessary long-term solution and an important symbol of responsibility and stewardship. “The thrust of this entire project is to set an example of climbers taking care of their own,” says Young. “We’re not going to sit around and wait for this problem to get out of control.”

promo logo